Atlanta Braves fans are waiting for their team to be consistently good again. After winning the division handily in 2013 but losing in the NLDS, the team fired general manager Frank Wren at the end of the following year. They replaced him with a duo: president of baseball pperations John Hart and GM John Coppolella. These two combined with longtime Braves executive John Schuerholz to form the team’s new brain trust.
They began rebuilding immediately. That offseason they sent familiar faces Evan Gattis, Jason Heyward, Craig Kimbrel, Justin Upton and Melvin Upton Jr. all packing. They signed longtime Oriole Nick Markakis. Midway through 2015, the team traded Alex Wood. After the season, they dealt Andrelton Simmons and then Shelby Miller. The only notable names remaining from Wren’s time were Freddie Freeman and Julio Teheran.
Two years after the regime change, I wanted to evaluate their efforts. But first, I needed metrics. How does one evaluate a rebuild? After pondering the subject, I landed on three aspects: team run differential, time, and payroll flexibility. Below I discuss how the Braves are doing in these areas.
Team Run Differential
The first aspect of a rebuilding team is run differential. Everyone wants their team to win games. But run differential tells a better story than wins and losses do.
The Braves’ run differentials in 2015 and 2016 were terrible, but those years aren’t the focus. It’s 2017, 2018, and that 2019 are. Because I don’t have a crystal ball to envision next year’s roster or its talents, I’ll talk about the process instead. How are the Braves attempting to address their future run differential?
At their core, they’re rebuilding around three players:
- Freddie Freeman is a safe bet. After somewhat of a down year in 2015, he’ll finish this year around 6 WAR. Since 2011 he trails only Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto in WAR among first basemen and matches about evenly with Anthony Rizzo. He’s 26 and under contract through 2021.
- Ender Inciarte is wrapping up a four-win season. Inciarte was everything fans thought he’d be, a league-average hitter who plays stellar defense at an up-the-middle position. He’s 25 years old and under team control through 2020.
- Julio Teheran is the team’s nominal ace on the strength of a three-win year; however, he doesn’t have the track record about which fans should feel excited. His 102 xFIP- suggests he’s more of a league-average starter. For more on Teheran, see Eric Longenhangen’s scouting report and Eno Sarris’ excellent piece from earlier this year.
Teheran’s status as rotation ace may be why Coppolella recently told Buster Olney the team plans to focus on starting pitching this offseason. But they may not have to look far. Longenhagen describes the Braves’ farm system as “loaded with arms.” Four of these arms appeared on Baseball America’s midseason top-100 list: Kolby Allard, Sean Newcomb, Mike Soroka, and Touki Toussaint. Add position players Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson to the combination of Freeman and Inciarte and you start getting Braves fans excited. Keith Law certainly did earlier this year when ranked the team’s farm system No. 1 in the sport.
Fans should also feel good about how the team acquired its talent. We know about the eye-popping Shelby Miller trade. In addition to that move, Longenhagen says “[The Braves] have done a tremendous job capitalizing on every asset available. The top of the farm system is loaded, but they’ve also added relevant pieces by trading scrapheap pickups like Lucas Harrell. They maneuvered their draft pool quite well this year and got three monster prep arms in Ian Anderson, Joey Wentz, and Kyle Muller. That’s a sign of an efficient organization.”
If your mantra is “process over results,” as it likely is given you’re reading FanGraphs, you should be excited about how the Braves organization works. Again, I can’t predict the run differential of the 2017 team. But the front office is attempting to boost it in the right ways. We’ll know more next March.
The second aspect of a rebuilding team is time. Fans hate waiting for a team to be good, especially when it was so good so recently. Luckily we have a temporal standard by which we can judge the Braves: three years.
The Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros provided us with this timeline. Both teams installed new regimes before the 2012 season. Both teams immediately fell off a cliff and remained below a .450 Pythagorean winning percentage for the next three years. Both teams made the playoffs in 2015. Chicago won its division this year; meanwhile, Houston remains relevant.
The following graph shows their Pythagorean winning percentages before, during, and after their rebuilds:
The Braves are on track here. Hart and Copollela fully took over after the 2014 season. The team’s Pythagorean record dropped immediately to .376 and rose a bit this year:
The Braves’ trajectory is more encouraging than the Astros’, who slid in their second rebuilding year. But it’s not as good as the Cubs’, who improved in their second rebuilding year by more than the Braves did.
Based on this timeline, Braves fans should be okay with more losing in 2017. Contention is more likely to be a surprise based on good luck than a plan based on skill. If the team doesn’t improve dramatically in 2018, though, Braves fans have my permission to get grumpy.
The third aspect of a rebuilding team is payroll flexibility. Flexibility increases the chance a GM can acquire and retain the right players and minimize the impact of acquiring the wrong ones. Coppolella implied as much when he told Olney, “We have more money now than we’ve had in any of the 10 years that I’ve been a part of the Braves.”
I defined a team’s payroll flexibility as their spending limit minus their actual payroll. I can’t know a team’s spending limit, so I made an educated guess. Cot’s Contracts has team Opening Day payroll information going back to 2000. I found the teams’ highest payrolls in terms of 2016 dollars and inferred that’s the most they’re willing to spend. The difference between that maximum and any given Opening Day payroll is how much monetary wiggle room the team has.
The rightmost column in the following table shows the flexibility the Cubs and Astros had going into their third rebuild year and where the Braves are now:
|Team||Year with Highest Payroll (Prior to Rebuild)||Highest Payroll Prior to Rebuild*||Third Year of Rebuild||Opening Day Payroll in Third Year of Rebuild*||Payroll Flexibility in Third Year of Rebuild|
Look at the Cubs. The third year of their rebuild was 2014. Prior to that year they’d recorded their highest payroll in 2010: $158.8 million. At the time, this was their theoretical spending limit. (They couldn’t have expressed it in 2016 dollars; I do so here to facilitate a comparison with the current Braves.) The team opened the season with a payroll of $92.7 million. Therefore, their flexibility that year was $66.1 million. The Astros had a similar amount of flexibility in their final rebuilding year.
The Braves fall $10-13 million short by comparison. They have about $53.4 million to replace five free agents (Gordon Beckham, Emilio Bonifacio, Jim Johnson, Eric O’Flaherty, and A.J. Pierzynski) and improve their team overall. That’s a good amount, but the Cubs and Astros had more with which to work.
Side note: I know Matt Kemp is excited to play for the team, but if the Braves traded him, their flexibility next year would be about $72.6 million before accounting for any major leaguers they received. The table above demonstrates just how much money that would be.
Wins in Atlanta aren’t guaranteed. Hart and Coppolella still have to make smart baseball moves. Chicago and Houston made many: they drafted solid prospects like Kris Bryant and Carlos Correa and hit on trades like Jake Arrieta and Ken Giles. Then after you have the players, you have to develop them and keep them healthy.
The Cubs and Astros also didn’t have to deal with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement during their rebuild. That’s coming in December. I don’t know what changes it might contain, but I’m sure the Braves have some idea and are preparing contingency plans as needed.
So far, though, the rebuild in Georgia is proceeding well. Within two years, the team’s proved it has a shrewd front office, stockpiling a top-notch farm system while retaining a few high-quality major league players. If anything, the Braves could shed more payroll, allowing them to compete better in the 2017 and 2018 free agent classes. The former might have Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish; the latter might have Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, Jose Fernandez, and Andrew Miller. Wouldn’t these guys look good playing in shiny new SunTrust Park?
One more year, Braves fans. One more year of losing, and you can start demanding improvements.